CLUTCHING a brownie and visions of a return to politics, Jerry Brown wades through the crowd, shaking hands, and pontificating on subjects from precinct politics to the slums of Calcutta. It has been raining most of the morning, and about 100 Democratic activists have gathered at a Spanish-style home in this coastal town to hear what some consider one of the most inventive political thinkers of his time and who others think is a flake.
``Politics, citizenship,'' he tells a crowd huddled under an outdoor canopy, ``is the way we work together in the most general commitment we have. It gives us an opportunity to have some impact.''
The rumors you've heard are true: Edmund G. Brown Jr. is back. A bit grayer around the edges, a bit paunchier, some say a bit more mature, but he is still full of ideas and still able to confound, to invoke delight and derision.
His vehicle for return, after six years on the sidelines and a global soul-searching odyssey, is the chairmanship of the state Democratic Party.
It may seem an odd position for a man who spent eight years as governor of California, twice ran for the presidency, and eschewed the party in the past. It's odder still considering that most pundits consider the post the Mr. Goodwrench of politics - a place for a quiet insider who has little power.
But Jerry Brown has rarely allowed himself to be taken in by political conventions. He thinks his high-profile persona, coupled with recent changes in California that give parties more power, could help turn the organization into a major political force.
``We're bucking against 70 years of history in California where we have had an antiparty party,'' he says. ``But it doesn't have to be that way. We can make it the most powerful, most effective Democratic Party anywhere in the United States.''
Officially, Mr. Brown will find out tomorrow if his return to politics is real. That's when the state Democratic Party meets in Sacramento, Calif., and delegates elect a new chairman.
Most pundits expect him to win the balloting over Steve Westly, the vice-chairman of the party who works for a San Francisco-area financial firm. But even if he does, his tenure is likely to be marked by controversy.
Republicans are already talking about exploiting his ``Gov. Moonbeam'' image, some Democrats are uneasy about his stewardship, and lurking in the background is what Jerry Brown might do in the future.
``My long-term ambition is my short-term goal of building this party,'' he says when the question comes up here. But almost in the same breath he adds: ``I don't intend not to be around for the next 20 years.''
Jerry Brown's return comes after one of the more unusual hiatuses in American politics. Since losing a Senate race to Republican Pete Wilson in 1982, the peripatetic politician has studied Spanish in a Mexican village, probed Zen Buddhism in Japan, and tended to the destitute with Mother Teresa in India.
Seeing the courage of people in deprivation, he says, has helped him become more ``optimistic'' about the United States. ``I think the lesson is we shouldn't be pessimistic in any way,'' says the man who once expoused an ``era of limits'' philosophy. ``I think we can afford things.''
At the same time, Brown says he has strengthened his desire to ``create a structure where everybody gets an opportunity at a decent life.'' His work with the dying in Calcutta has prompted him to rethink his personal views in favor of abortion, angering many feminists. Though he says he still supports a ``pro-choice'' policy and government funding for abortions.
To his supporters for the chairmanship - including big name Democrats like Sen. Alan Cranston and state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown - the former governor will bring creative thinking, charisma, and prodigious fund-raising capabilities.
Some Democrats worry he'll bring negative baggage - the Rose Bird Supreme Court appointment, mishandling of the Medfly crisis, and a flaky image.
``He will be an easy target,'' says Sal Russo, a top California GOP strategist. There is also concern in Democratic quarters about his administrative capabilities and whether he is too liberal for California voters today.
Brown admits he may become a pincushion for Republican criticism but thinks the added visibility will more than offset the liabilities. He envisions using his tenure to increase Democratic registration (now at a 50-year low), integrate grass-roots politics into the party structure, raise big money, and get more Democrats elected to office.
He could be helped in these attempts by new authority allowing parties to endorse candidates in primaries, and a new campaign-spending law that may make them more important in fund raising. Still some analysts doubt he will be able to turn the party to the force it once was.